Old Calabria
By Norman Douglas

Presented by

Public Domain Books


One looks into the faces of these Tarentines and listens to their casual conversations, trying to unravel what manner of life is theirs. But it is difficult to avoid reading into their characters what history leads one to think should be there.

The upper classes, among whom I have some acquaintance, are mellow and enlightened; it is really as if something of the honied spirit of those old Greek sages still brooded over them. Their charm lies in the fact that they are civilized without being commercialized. Their politeness is unstrained, their suaveness congenital; they remind me of that New England type which for Western self-assertion substitutes a yielding graciousness of disposition. So it is with persistent gentle upbringing, at Taranto and elsewhere. It tones the individual to reposeful sweetness; one by one, his anfractuosities are worn off; he becomes as a pebble tossed in the waters, smooth, burnished, and (to outward appearances) indistinguishable from his fellows.

But I do not care about the ordinary city folk. They have an air of elaborate superciliousness which testifies to ages of systematic half-culture. They seem to utter that hopeless word, connu! And what, as a matter of fact, do they know? They are only dreaming in their little backwater, like the oysters of the lagoon, distrustful of extraneous matter and oblivious of the movement in a world of men beyond their shell. You hear next to nothing of “America,” that fruitful source of fresh notions; there is no emigration to speak of; the population is not sufficiently energetic–they prefer to stay at home. Nor do they care much about the politics of their own country: one sees less newspapers here than in most Italian towns. “Our middle classes,” said my friend the Italian deputy of whom I have already spoken, “are like our mules: to be endurable, they must be worked thirteen hours out of the twelve.” But these have no industries to keep them awake, no sports, no ambitions; and this has gone on for long centuries, In Taranto it is always afternoon. “The Tarentines,” says Strabo, “have more holidays than workdays in the year.”

And never was city-population more completely cut off from the country; never was wider gulf between peasant and townsman. There are charming walks beyond the New Quarter–a level region, with olives and figs and almonds and pomegranates standing knee-deep in ripe odorous wheat; but the citizens might be living at Timbuctu for all they know of these things. It rains little here; on the occasion of my last visit not a drop had fallen for fourteen months; and consequently the country roads are generally smothered in dust. Now, dusty boots are a scandal and an offence in the eyes of the gentle burghers, who accordingly never issue out of their town walls. They have forgotten the use of ordinary appliances of country life, such as thick boots and walking-sticks; you will not see them hereabouts. Unaware of this idiosyncrasy, I used to carry a stick on my way through the streets into the surroundings, but left it at home on learning that I was regarded as a kind of perambulating earthquake. The spectacle of a man clattering through the streets on horseback, such as one often sees at Venosa, would cause them to barricade their doors and prepare for the last judgment.

Altogether, essentially nice creatures, lotus-eaters, fearful of fuss or novelty, and drowsily satisfied with themselves and life in general. The breezy healthfulness of travel, the teachings of art or science, the joys of rivers and green lanes–all these things are a closed book to them. Their interests are narrowed down to the purely human: a case of partial atrophy. For the purely human needs a corrective; it is not sufficiently humbling, and that is exactly what makes them so supercilious. We must take a little account of the Cosmos nowadays–it helps to rectify our bearings. They have their history, no doubt. But save for that one gleam of Periclean sunshine the record, though long and varied, is sufficiently inglorious and does not testify to undue exertions.

A change is at hand.

Gregorovius lamented the filthy condition of the old town. It is now spotless.

He deplored that Taranto possessed no museum. This again is changed, and the provincial museum here is justly praised, though the traveller may be annoyed at finding his favourite rooms temporarily closed (is there any museum in Italy not “partially closed for alterations”?). New accessions to its store are continually pouring in; so they lately discovered, in a tomb, a Hellenistic statuette of Eros and Aphrodite, 30 centimetres high, terra-cotta work of the third century. The goddess stands, half-timidly, while Eros alights in airy fashion on her shoulders and fans her with his wings–an exquisite little thing.

He was grieved, likewise, that no public collection of books existed here. But the newly founded municipal library is all that can be desired. The stranger is cordially welcomed within its walls and may peruse, at his leisure, old Galateus, Giovan Giovene, and the rest of them.

Wandering among those shelves, I hit upon a recent volume (1910) which gave me more food for thought than any of these ancients. It is called “Cose di Puglie,” and contains some dozen articles, all by writers of this province of old Calabria, [Footnote: It included the heel of Italy.] on matters of exclusively local interest–its history, meteorology, dialects, classical references to the country, extracts from old economic documents, notes on the development of Apulian printing, examples of modern local caricature, descriptions of mediaeval monuments; a kind of anthology, in short, of provincial lore. The typography, paper and illustrations of this remarkable volume are beyond all praise; they would do honour to the best firm in London or Paris. What is this book? It is no commercial speculation at all; it is a wedding present to a newly married couple–a bouquet of flowers, of intellectual blossoms, culled from their native Apulian meadows. One notes with pleasure that the happy pair are neither dukes nor princes. There is no trace of snobbishness in the offering, which is simply a spontaneous expression of good wishes on the part of a few friends. But surely it testifies to most refined feelings. How immeasurably does this permanent and yet immaterial feast differ from our gross wedding banquets and ponderous gilt clocks and tea services! Such persons cannot but have the highest reverence for things of the mind; such a gift is the fairest efflorescence of civilization. And this is only another aspect of that undercurrent of spirituality in south Italy of whose existence the tourist, harassed by sordid preoccupations, remains wholly unaware.

This book was printed at Bari. Bari, not long ago, consisted of a dark and tortuous old town, exactly like the citadel of Taranto. It has now its glaring New Quarter, not a whit less disagreeable than the one here. Why should Taranto not follow suit in the matter of culture? Heraclea, Sybaris and all the Greek settlements along this coast have vanished from earth; only Taranto and Cotrone have survived to carry on, if they can, the old traditions. They have survived, thanks to peculiar physical conditions that have safeguarded them from invaders. . . .

But these very conditions have entailed certain drawbacks–drawbacks which Buckle would have lovingly enumerated to prove their influence upon the habits and disposition of the Tarentines. That marine situation . . . only think of three thousand years of scirocco, summer and winter! It is alone enough to explain molle Tarentum– enough to drain the energy out of a Newfoundland puppy! And then, the odious dust of the country roadways–for it is odious. Had the soil been granitic, or even of the ordinary Apennine limestone, the population might have remained in closer contact with wild things of nature, and retained a perennial fountain of enjoyment and inspiration. A particular kind of rock, therefore, has helped to make them sluggish and incurious. The insularity of their citadel has worked in the same direction, by focussing their interests upon the purely human. That inland sea, again: were it not an ideal breeding-place for shell-fish, the Tarentines would long ago have learnt to vary their diet. Thirty centuries of mussel-eating cannot but impair the physical tone of a people.

And had the inland sea not existed, the Government would not have been tempted to establish that arsenal which has led to the erection of the new town and consequent municipal exactions. “The arsenal,” said a grumbling old boatman to me, “was the beginning of our purgatory.” A milk diet would work wonders with the health and spirits of the citizens. But since the building of the new quarter, such a diet has become a luxury; cows and goats will soon be scarce as the megatherium. There is a tax of a franc a day on every cow, and a herd of ten goats, barely enough to keep a poor man alive, must pay annually 380 francs in octroi. These and other legalized robberies, which among a more virile populace would cause the mayor and town council to be forthwith attached to the nearest lamp-post, are patiently borne. It is imbelle Tarentum– a race without grit.

I would also recommend the burghers some vegetables, so desirable for their sedentary habits, but there again! it seems to be a peculiarity of the local soil to produce hardly a leaf of salad or cabbage. Potatoes are plainly regarded as an exotic–they are the size of English peas, and make me think of Ruskin’s letter to those old ladies describing the asparagus somewhere in Tuscany. And all this to the waiter’s undisguised astonishment.

“The gentleman is rich enough to pay for meat. Why trouble about this kind of food?”...

And yet–a change is at hand. These southern regions are waking up from their slumber of ages. Already some of Italy’s acutest thinkers and most brilliant politicians are drawn from these long-neglected shores. For we must rid ourselves of that incubus of “immutable race characters”: think only of our Anglo-Saxon race! What has the Englishman of to-day in common with that rather lovable fop, drunkard and bully who would faint with ecstasy over Byron’s Parisina after pistolling his best friend in a duel about a wench or a lap-dog? Such differences as exist between races of men, exist only at a given moment.

And what, I sometimes ask myself–what is now the distinguishing feature between these southern men and ourselves? Briefly this, I think. In mundane matters, where the personal equation dominates, their judgment is apt to be turbid and perverse; but as one rises into questions of pure intelligence, it becomes serenely impartial. We, on the other hand, who are pre-eminently clear-sighted in worldly concerns of law and government and in all subsidiary branches of mentality, cannot bring ourselves to reason dispassionately on non-practical subjects. “L’esprit aussi a sa pudeur,” says Remy de Gourmont. Well, this pudeur de l’esprit, discouraged among the highest classes in England, is the hall-mark of respectability hereabouts. A very real difference, at this particular moment. . . .

There is an end of philosophizing.

They have ousted me from my pleasant quarters, the landlady’s son and daughter-in-law having returned unexpectedly and claiming their apartments. I have taken refuge in a hotel. My peace is gone; my days in Taranto are numbered.

Loath to depart, I linger by the beach of the Ionian Sea beyond the new town. It is littered with shells and holothurians, with antique tesserae of blue glass and marble fragments, with white mosaic pavements and potteries of every age, from the glossy Greco-Roman ware whose delicately embossed shell devices are emblematic of this sea-girt city, down to the grosser products of yesterday. Of marbles I have found cipollino, pavonazzetto, giallo and rosso antico, but no harder materials such as porphyry or serpentine. This, and the fact that the mosaics are pure white, suggests that the houses here must have dated, at latest, from Augustan times.

[Footnote: Nor is there any of the fashionable verde antico, and this points in the same direction. Corsi says nothing as to the date of its introduction, and I have not read the treatise of Silenziario, but my own observations lead me to think that the lapis atracius can hardly have been known under Tiberius. Not so those hard ones: they imported wholesale by his predecessor Augustus, who was anxious to be known as a scorner of luxury (a favourite pose with monarchs), yet spent incalculable sums on ornamental stones both for public and private ends. One is struck by a certain waste of material; either the expense was deliberately disregarded or finer methods of working the stones were not yet in vogue. A revolution in the technique of stone-cutting must have set in soon after his death, for thenceforward we find the most intractable rocks cut into slices thin as card-board: too thin for pavements, and presumably for encrusting walls and colonnades. The Augustans, unable to produce these effects naturally, attempted imitation-stones, and with wonderful success. I have a fragment of their plaster postiche copying the close-grained Egyptian granite; the oily lustre of the quartz is so fresh and the peculiar structure of the rock, with its mica scintillations, so admirably rendered as to deceive, after two thousand years, the eye of a trained mineralogist.]

Here I sit, on the tepid shingle, listening to the plash of the waves and watching the sun as it sinks over the western mountains that are veiled in mists during the full daylight, but loom up, at this sunset hour, as from a fabulous world of gold. Yonder lies the Calabrian Sila forest, the brigands’ country. I will attack it by way of Rossano, and thence wander, past Longobucco, across the whole region. It may be well, after all, to come again into contact with streams and woodlands, after this drenching of classical associations and formal civic life!

Near me stands a shore-battery which used to be called “Batteria Chianca.” It was here they found, some twenty years ago, a fine marble head described as a Venus, and now preserved in the local museum. I observe that this fort has lately been re-christened “Batteria Archyta." Can this be due to a burst of patriotism for the Greek warrior-sage who ruled Taranto, or is it a subtle device to mislead the foreign spy?

Here, too, are kilns where they burn the blue clay into tiles and vases. I time a small boy at work shaping the former. His average output is five tiles in four minutes, including the carrying to and fro of the moist clay; his wages about a shilling a day. But if you wish to see the manufacture of more complicated potteries, you must go to the unclean quarter beyond the railway station. Once there, you will not soon weary of that potter’s wheel and the fair shapes that blossom forth under its enchanted touch. This ware of Taranto is sent by sea to many parts of south Italy, and you may see picturesque groups of it, here and there, at the street corners.

Hardly has the sun disappeared before the lighthouse in the east begins to flash. The promontory on which it stands is called San Vito after one of the musty saints, now almost forgotten, whose names survive along these shores. Stoutly this venerable one defended his ancient worship against the radiant and victorious Madonna; nor did she dislodge him from a certain famous sanctuary save by the questionable expedient of adopting his name: she called herself S. M. “della Vita.” That settled it. He came from Mazzara in Sicily, whither they still carry, to his lonely shrine, epileptics and others distraught in mind. And were I in a discursive mood, I would endeavour to trace some connection between his establishment here and the tarantella–between St. Vitus’ dance and that other one which cured, they say, the bite of the Tarentine spider.

But I am not inclined for such matters at present. The Cala-brian uplands are still visible in the gathering twilight; they draw me onwards, away from Taranto. It must be cool up there, among the firs and beeches.

And a land, moreover, of multiple memories and interests–this Calabria. A land of great men. In 1737 the learned Aceti was able to enumerate over two thousand celebrated Calabrians–athletes, generals, musicians, centenarians, inventors, martyrs, ten popes, ten kings, as well as some sixty conspicuous women. A land of thinkers. Old Zavarroni, born in 1705, gives us a list of seven hundred Calabrian writers; and I, for one, would not care to bring his catalogue up to date. The recently acquired Biblioteca Calabra at Naples alone contains God knows how many items, nearly all modern!

And who shall recount its natural attractions? Says another old writer:

“Here is all sorts of Corn, sundry Wines, and in great abundance, all kinds of Fruits, Oyle, Hony, Wax, Saffron, Bombace, Annis and Coriander seeds. There groweth Gum, Pitch, Turpentine and liquid Storax. In former times it was never without Mettals, but at this present it doth much abound, having in most parts divers sorts of Mines, as Gold, Silver, Iron, Marble, Alabaster, Cristal, Marchesite, three sorts of white Chaulk, Virmilion, Alume, Brimstone, and the Adamant stone, which being in the fifth degree, draweth not Iron, and is in colour black. There groweth hemp and flax of two sorts, the one called the male, the other the female: there falleth Manna from heaven, truly a thing very rare; and although there is not gathered such abundance of Silk, yet I dare say there is not had so much in all Italy besides. There are also bathes, both hot, luke-warm, and cold, to cure many diseases. Near the Seaside, and likewise on the Mediterrane are goodly Gardens full of Oringes, Citrons, and Lemons of divers sorts. It is watered with many Rivers. There are on the hils of the Apennine, thick Woods of high Firrs, Holms, Platanes, Oaks, where grows the white odoriferous Mushrome which shineth in the night. Here is bred the soft stone Frigia, which every month yields a delicate and wholesome Gum, and the stone Aetites, by us called the stone Aquilina. In this Province there is excellent hunting of divers creatures, as wild Hoggs, Staggs, Goats, Hares, Foxes, Porcupines, Marmosets. There are also ravenous beasts, as Wolves, Bears, Luzards, which are quick-sighted, and have the hinder parts spotted with divers colours. This kind of Beast was brought from France to Rome in the sports of Pompey the great, and Hunters affirm this Beast to be of so frail a memory, that although he eateth with hunger, if he chance to look back, remembreth no more his meat, and departing searcheth for other.” Who would not visit Calabria, if only on the chance of beholding the speckled posterior of the absent-minded Luzard?



[Buy at Amazon]
Old Calabria (Marlboro Travel)
By Norman Douglas
At Amazon